With the growing popularity of influencer marketing and influencer engagement amongst brands the spotlight has well and truly been fixed on influencer culture and the impact it is having on consumerism. In the UK alone “one in four Brits has bought a product as a direct result of social influencer recommendations – but 42% called for content creators and influencers to curb the fake news and offensive opinions” according to research from Golin (2018). Transparency from influencers and brands is crucial as more and more advertising regulations are being put into place to ensure that all paid for content should be made clear by influencers across all social media platforms. In 2017 the Committees of Advertising Practice and the Advertising Standard Authority shared this useful blog article: “Hidden” advertising on social media is taking up more and more of our time. In particular, marketing by influencers is an increasing challenge and one that doesn’t fit so neatly into our standard categories.” The influencer industry is changing rapidly and brands as well as regulators have to keep up with those changes.
The advantage of using influencers in campaigns is the proximity that influencers have to a brand’s target audience. Fans/followers place their trust in influencers in a way that would take years for larger and small scale brands to establish themselves. There is no denying that at its core influencer engagement is about tapping into the relationships that influencers have with their follower base which is why PR and Marketing departments are so keen to work with social media influencers across a variety of platforms. Social media IS part of the media mix and using traditional media alone is not enough. At the same time standard advertising has started to incorporate the social media space with adverts becoming more “shareable”.
You can see where the lines start to converge when it comes to the influencer space, once upon a time you could read a review or an editorial and you knew (for the most post part) that it was earned coverage whilst with an advert you knew it was a paid for and you could make up your own mind whether you wanted to buy something or not. But now you see your favourite Youtuber/Instagram/Blogger/Tweeter talking about a product or service and you might be more inclined to check out that product because of the virtual relationship you have with that individual. It is not a faceless corporation telling you to buy from them, it is that “pocket friend” who makes you smile with their lovely pictures and funny jokes who is nudging your perception and potentially changing your spending habits. Many of your favourite online personalities, particularly on YouTube and Instagram and blogs, have invested time and money (hopefully not by buying followers) into building their online reputations, follower base and online clout. They are brands in their own right and they have the right to be paid for their time, effort and of course their influence. There have been a number of instances that have given influencers a bad reputation recently or which have led to people undermining the effort and impact of influencers which leads to the question of whether society actually likes influencers?
Sondoss Al-Qattan, a Kuwaiti Make-up artist and blogger went viral globally in July 2018 after she shared a video of herself criticizing new provisions to protect Filipino domestic workers across the Middle East. Al-Qattan, currently has 2.4 million followers on Instagram and although her awful comments sparked an international outrage and some brand withdrew their endorsement she still has a sold fanbase. This video gives a great overview of the story:
Interesting to note that she did not apologise and her online platform is still doing well so whilst she has lost some deals she may have been able to sustain her lifestyle directly through her fanbase. This is a good example of why some people do not like the power and clout that influencers have particularly when it comes to sharing harmful rhetorics, there comes a stage where they seem to be untouchable and unfortunately if they have fans who share their values even if brands distance themselves their online visibility continues to thrive. From a PR perspective brands have to be mindful of who they align themselves with, too often brands become obsessed with numbers and do not take the time to assess the character of the individuals that they are working with.
This moves onto the moral foundations of some influencers, is it all about the money or they actually care about the brands that they are representing? A great example of this was when the Road Safety Authority of Ireland had to withdraw an influencer campaign about safe driving and seat belts when the influencers involved were seen not using their seat belts correctly. From an ethical stand point it says a lot that individuals would accept money for a cause that they might not care about and their subsequent content could lead to harmful behaviour from their followers.
On the subject of money, people seem to have a complete misunderstanding of how much money influencers earn and so have become resentful of how influencers not only make their money but also do not see their work as even being worthy of payment. There was the interesting story of #VisaBae in April 2018 when a fashion blogger, Rutendo Tichiwangani who had been living in the UK since she was 10 feared deportation to Zimbabwe from the UK. It came as a surprise to some when she launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund her visa application. Her online activities including YouTubing, blogging and instragramming had enabled her to sustain a certain level of lifestyle, or at least enabled her to present a certain lifestyle to her followers.
She managed to raise twice the amount that she was asking for and is still in the UK by the looks of her instagram page. Her story raised the serious issue of perception and how followers perceive their online favourites but it also shows yet again that even with the backlash there were still many loyal fans willing to help and support her.
Perception is something that many people bring up when talking about social media influencers, most of us know by now that people only show what they want to show online, and of course due to the power of brand identity many show a highly filtered perspective. More often than not this is what brands want to align themselves with, real people who still look unreal. The online conversation surrounding instagram influencer Scarlett London was the inspiration behind this piece. The backlash to me was overwhelming and for the most part unnecessary. Her post in partnership with Listerine was criticised by some people who felt like she was representing a false ideal – which begs the question so those same critics complain about fantastical commercial adverts in the same way? The level of negativity directed to her was excessive in light of the context of the content. We have to each take responsibility for how much we are allowing ourselves to be influenced, anyone who sees this post and runs out to buy helium balloons to decorate their headboard with should probably spend less time on social media and more time becoming their own person.
The best of days start with a smile and positive thoughts. And pancakes. And strawberries. And bottomless tea. My morning routine is now live on YouTube – and while I don’t show you my real bed hair (trust me, it’s not pretty), I do give you a little insight into how I start my day in a positive way. Head over to my stories for a swipe up link – and let me know what you think! It features my morning habit of rinsing with Listerine Advanced White to help whiten my teeth. @listerineukireland #BringOutTheBold | This is a paid partnership with Listerine.
Yes certain influencers can be described as ambassadors of aspirational living but it is up to brands to do the work when it comes to understanding the influencers that they work with. We have to understand that there are real people (bots notwithstanding) following these influencers and whilst I would never advocate for harmful rhetorics to be shared by them, their followers are their “bottomline”. Without fanbase support they would not exist, thrive or survive and without due diligence from brands they can be swept up in the idea that they are untouchable. They should be held accountable for their all of their actions but not reproached for simply existing.
Another interesting point that media outlets won’t always admit to is the way in which influencers are taking up space in the media realm – when PRs conduct media relations campaigns they are not just inviting journalists they are inviting influencers too. Inevitably the usual benefits and perks of the job that were traditionally only for journalists are now being spread out and causes tensions. With that tension comes the possibility that journalists may amplify negative stories about influencers in order to shift perception as Bola Awoniyi, Founder of The Fluid Concept mentions here:
Plus many journos look at bloggers as part of the wave that is eating their lunch & devaluing media companies, so they pass their feelings onto their readers
— Bola Awoniyi (@MrAwoniyi) November 30, 2018
Now is the time to understand and pay attention to the complexities of the influencer industry, learn from them rather than criticise all of them, after all they are not going anywhere anytime soon and do we want them to? Influencers serve a purpose in the media space, just take the time to understand what their purpose is and take it from there.